Wednesday 18 July 2018

Jones struggling to solve England's finishing problem

Eddie Jones is aware that England have lacked impact off the bench in the Six Nations Photo: PA
Eddie Jones is aware that England have lacked impact off the bench in the Six Nations Photo: PA

Paul Rees

Trains may be off the Eddie Jones travel agenda for the time being but training in the traditional sense is the route to redemption for his England players after last Saturday's defeat to Scotland.

It is eight years since England lost more than one match in a Six Nations, and their conquerors then are the remaining two teams they face in the tournament - France in Paris on Saturday followed by the leaders, Ireland, at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day. The champions' crown is slipping and the head coach is looking for hands to keep it in place on a weekend when the Irish could seal the title.

"Losing creates that little bit more hurt," Jones says. "You're driven to find how to get better and you look at the players to see who is hurting. Our selection policy is always to pick the best 23 and we will definitely have a look to see how we can improve the team. I've spoken to the players: sulking, worrying about what the media says or whether they are going to get picked is not productive.

"I have told them that they do not need to worry about selection because the only person who selects the team is me. They have to put themselves in a position where they say to me that they are ready to play against France and I have to pick them. We've got to play better in Paris. The best teacher is the lesson. There is a great deal of determination in the squad. You lose; that's life. You react."

A significant factor behind England's success last season was the impact made by replacements; 'finishers', as Jones dubbed them. England trailed in the last quarter against France and Wales in their opening two matches, but recovered to win both, prompted by Danny Care at scrum-half, and then overcame a half-time deficit at home to Italy. This year, they failed to score in the final hour against Wales, who blew two prime try-scoring opportunities, and did not muster a point in the last 37 minutes in Scotland.

Excluding the win in Italy, England have scored 34 points and three tries in their last three Six Nations games, including last year's defeat by Ireland. While they have won 24 out of their 26 Tests since Jones took charge, the two defeats have come in their five away matches in the Six Nations, again factoring out the Azzurri. It shows how more competitive the Six Nations has become and how much more meaningful it is as a means of building to a World Cup.

Jones has come under pressure to drop his captain, Dylan Hartley, along with another thirty-something in Mike Brown but both were off the field in the final 25 minutes at Murrayfield when England failed to close the gap on Scotland.

The injury suffered by scrum-half Ben Youngs on the opening weekend has been telling because Care's impact from the bench has not been replicated by that of Richard Wigglesworth, an entirely different player. Jones did not groom a third scrum-half because he wanted to devote maximum training time to Youngs and Care but it means his bench has lost its catalyst.

"We are always assessing to see if there's anyone better than what we've got at the moment," says Jones, "but they have to have experience and they are going to have to be able to come up to Test match quality quickly. We are appraising all the players who are available to us, but the reality is there are not too many who are outside the squad. The likes of Denny Solomona, Marcus Smith and Zach Mercer have the potential to play Test rugby but it is how quickly they mature."

Win or lose, Jones braces himself for the Hartley question. England's last two matches have highlighted the leadership issue the head coach constantly refers to because problems were not solved. But when players have to be briefed before facing the media and given a list of points to make, why should they be expected to show initiative on the pitch? Should it be a surprise that they become derivative?

France will not play with the frenzy of Scotland. They will not be roared on by such a passionate crowd: the days of noise echoing around the concrete corridors of the Parc des Princes and reverberating with a boom on the pitch are long gone. Multiple away days for players in the European tournaments have stripped away the rarity factor of playing in France, and removed any fear. Since 2010, Les Bleus have achieved only one victory in the fixture: in 2014 when England found a way of losing in the closing minutes (a match after which the then head coach, Stuart Lancaster, was criticised for taking off Hartley and Care too early).

"France are a big physical team and I do not think they will play any differently," says Jones, "trying to punch the ball up with their big forwards, create an offload and then play their more traditional French game.

"Mathieu Bastareaud gives them a different dimension in the midfield, able to work his way through a tackle and offload as well as giving them defensive strength. He reminds me of Lloyd Walker [the former Australia fly-half or centre] who also used to waddle around the field but had an incredible influence.

"After a defeat, you need strong people, ones who do not come in and kick stones. You do not need any who are feeling sorry for themselves; you want them to set an example of how we will go forward and Dylan has done that. The intensity of the game now means it is very difficult for a front-rower to play 80 minutes: they tend to go 60 because the amount of work they have to do is three times what it was 10 years ago."

Whatever changes Jones makes, England will need to secure quicker possession than they did against Scotland, when the lack of a Billy Vunipola or a Manu Tuilagi who can make ground from a standing start, hurt them.

The head coach stopped off on his way back from Edinburgh to watch Manchester United play Chelsea and chat to Alex Ferguson, a manager who oversaw some dramatic finishes. At least he will not encounter a flying Scotsman in the French capital but it is a day when his players will need to wing it.

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